Ladies Be Singin’

Fine musicians in their own right, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris are also longtime friends and collaborators on Trio and Trio II.

Fine musicians in their own right, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris are also longtime friends and collaborators on Trio and Trio II.

Just a wild mountain rose, needing freedom to grow 
So I ran fearing not where I’d go 
When a flower grows wild, it can always survive 
Wildflowers don’t care where they grow.
Wildflowers, Dolly Parton

Then Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”
Exodus 15:20-21

The wonderful thing about music is that there’s always more to discover. From individual artists, groups, genres, periods, there is always some song, or record, some story to discover and delight in. My father has always been a lover of music, and while his record collection was by no means the envy of Paul Mawhinney, I benefited from a large music collection that spanned many categories and years. I woke up to Buck Owens blaring through the stereo speakers, I ate my lunch while being serenaded by B.B. King, Fleetwood Mac was the soundtrack to my math homework.

Although my father’s musical collection included many female artists, I grew up listening to a lot of male singers and musicians. While I can easily recount the plethora of all-male bands in his catalogue, I strain to count a few all-female bands included in his (or my current) musical collection. This is not to discount the strong contributions of female singers and musicians in “co-ed” bands. Anyone who listens to Rumours cannot deny the indelible fingerprints left by Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie. What is the family affair of the Staple Singers without the gospel harmonies of the Staple sisters? Does anyone want to imagine Talking Heads without the frenetic bass of Tina Weymouth? And, pre- or post-divorce, George Jones and Tammy Wynette are simply a great duet.

Writer, editor, and literary critic Alberto Manguel declared that a library (and by extension the musical library) is a series of choices, conscious or otherwise; we could say as much about history. Given the relative dearth of information about women’s  advancement of music, in comparison with the well-documented contributions of men, one might imagine that the majority of women involved in music have been listeners of it. While the world needs sincere appreciators and promoters of music, to relegate the historical woman to this role would be ungenerous and inaccurate. In the past few decades some fantastic and thoughtful research on the contributions of female musicians have helped fill the gap. In her introduction to Rediscovering the Muses: Women’s Musical Traditions (1993), Kimberly Marshall states that because historically men have dictated the story of the musical tradition, the significant creative, vocal, and instrumental contributions of women have, paradoxically, remained silent. Commenting on historian E. H. Carr’s assessment of historical facts, that they are like fish in a huge body of water and at times are unreachable (or unimaginable), Marshall states that, “given the changing criteria for historical interpretation, new types of fish are being discovered in the vast ocean of music history” (xviii).

Ethel Stark leads a rehearsal before the Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra's performance at Carnegie Hall.

Ethel Stark leads a rehearsal before the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra’s performance at Carnegie Hall.

Throughout much of western music history and industry there has persisted the conception that women have not made more of a “splash” in the oceanic music history due to some inherent deficiency on their part. In David Gutnick’s CBC documentary “It Wasn’t Teatime: Ethel Stark and the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra,” musicologist Maria Noriega spoke to just such a response against the first all-female Canadian orchestra: “At the beginning skeptics didn’t think that a symphony orchestra composed of women, conducted by women and directed by women, and supported by women was going to be a success. They warned women that they could not function without male authority. [Laughter.] They thought that women could not compete with men because they were not emotionally stable or they didn’t have the physical stamina that men had”. Through talent, a love of the music, and sheer determination conductor Ethel Stark’s company refuted these unwarranted claims, going on to become the first Canadian symphony orchestra to play Carnegie Hall. The performance took place on October 22, 1947. Another notable claim of this particular performance was the first black female orchestra musician to play Carnegie Hall, Montreal Orchestra Symphony clarinetist Violet Grant States .

The very leggy musicians of the Bond quartet.

The talented and very leggy musicians of the Bond quartet hang out backstage with Russell Brand.

The very clothed Indigo Girls.

The  talented and very clothed Indigo Girls.

There can be little argument that making music and marketing music walks a fine line in a sexualized music industry. In 2011, the American Psychological Association reported that in a variety of media women are sexualized and objectified more often than men. The same organization reported on the impact this has on the sexualization of girls. Kimberly Marshall observes that  “music making and sexuality are intricately linked: in order to achieve musical success, ‘women must frequently serve the linked economical and erotic interests of a dominant culture’. In a catch-22 situation that still exists, the music of women who exploit their sexuality is devalued because of its association with these, ‘economic and erotic interests,’ while women who attempt to pursue careers in music without recourse to their sexual allure may be considered to have betrayed their sex: ‘Female sexuality itself may be negated or denied as a result of musical activity’” (Marshall, xxiv-xxv). An extremely odd and suspect 1985 study entitled “Psychological Androgyny in Musicians” concludes that male musicians tend to to be more feminine than male non-musicians and female musicians tend to be more masculine than female non-musicians (Kemp 105). While the study does not condemn male musicians for being more “empathetic” than male non-musicians, it does equate empathy as being a distinctly female trait. An exploratory study conducted at Kent State University found that sex differences made no more impact on musical aptitude than did left- or right-handedness or footedness (Schleuter 30).

Masha Piotrkowska, pictured here with her banjo, played mandolin in the Women's Orchestra at Auschwitz

Masha Piotrkowska, pictured here with her banjo, played mandolin in the Women’s Orchestra at Auschwitz

The Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra provided opportunities for women from a spectrum of backgrounds. While Ethel Stark conducted her rehearsals in Canada, across the ocean music saved the lives of some women, brought together under the most disturbing of circumstances. The Women’s Orchestra at Auschwitz kept time to the laboured marching of the prisoners. Founded to entertain SS officers, eventually the women’s repertoire grew to include over 200 pieces of music. Conducted by Jewish violinist Alma Rosé, the orchestra was constituted of professional and amateur musicians alike. Anita Lasker Wallfisch was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 and joined Rose’s orchestra shortly after her arrival to the Auschwitz concentration camp. A practiced cellist, Lasker Wallfisch was at first hesitant to admit her profession: “When I arrived, the girl [a fellow inmate, not an SS guard] processing me asked me what I did before the war. I told her I played the cello. What a stupid thing to say. ‘Fantastic,’ she said. ‘You’ll be saved.’ She called the conductor of the orchestra, Alma Rosé. As it happens, they didn’t have a cellist. There were crazy instruments in the orchestra – mandolins, accordions – but no cello, so I was like manna from heaven.” Gabriele Knapp provides further details about the musicians turned prisoners turned prisoner-musicians’ experience in her article Music as a Means of Survival: The Women’s Orchestra in Auschwitz.

Sisters of the Abbaye Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation

Sisters of the Abbaye Notre-Dame de l’Annonciation

Some women play together out of necessity, because it is the sole (yet significant) opportunity. Other women play together because of long-established social, cultural, or religious traditions. Since at least the medieval period singing has been a key communal activity in many convents, one which concentrated on the purification of mind and soul rather than musical perfection (Yardley 15). While many listeners will identify monks as the traditional singers of Gregorian chants, nuns in abbeys across the world sing in order to foster their discipline and prayer. The sisters of the Abbaye Notre-Dame de l’Annonciation, who chant eight times a day, recently signed a major record deal with Decca Records. Despite the nuns’ concern that this very public arrangement would lead to an intrusion on their cloistered life, choralist Sister Raphael said that ultimately, “if this was going to help people pray, if this was going to help people find God, if this was going to help people find peace, [we would] go through with it”. This honest attempt to spread the peace of a religion through song is thought to be a responsibility, and it is one that the a handful of Hindu women have recently been granted. According to Reuters, it was not until late 2011 that 108 Indian women were permitted to chant Vedic mantras. A prior belief that chanting the ancient scriptures would cause menstrual problems or childbearing issues prevented women from doing so.

Female Musicians, Tomb of Djeserkareseneb (Dynasty 18, ca. 1400–1390 B.C.E.)

Female Musicians, Tomb of Djeserkareseneb (Dynasty 18, ca. 1400–1390 B.C.E.)

In the past few decades there has been a slew of research indicating the pivotal role of women singers and instrumentalists in ancient and more recent periods. Radically reinterpreting textual and artifactual evidence, Carol Meyers suggests that ancient Israelite women experienced a robust performance tradition that afforded female musicians certain prestige and opportunities (1991 and 1993). While women of the Old Kingdom in ancient Egypt were relegated to certain secondary instruments and performance opportunities, there is evidence that during the New Kingdom period “all-female orchestras were favored over mixed-gender and exclusively male orchestras” (Teeter 91). South Australian aboriginal women have partaken in singing and dancing rituals for centuries. The dancing women actually have ancestral spirits sung into and then out of them by a separate group of women, reports Payne. This highly ritualized choral activity is integral for community, particularly cross-generational, kinship. Payne describes the gathering of women for participation in these off-the-cuff  rites: “I have frequently witnessed young women being told by their elders to leave their housework or schoolwork, ‘It will wait, but ritual will not'”. These aboriginal women performers require a private, all-female contingent of musicians/viewers for the supernatural effects to properly take hold. The Algerian meddahas, female Muslim singers, perform for all-female audiences out of a sense of decency. Accompanied by female instrumentalists, meddahas praise Allah and the Prophet in front of all-female audiences at weddings or religious ceremonies since “in such a conservative society, singing and dancing by a female in public before a male audience are considered taboo and dishonorable behavior”  (Noor Al-Deen 600).

Ronstadt, Parton, and Harris

Ronstadt, Parton, and Harris

Seeing women playing music together is increasingly meaningful to me. Trio and Trio II, collaborative albums by musicians Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt, are one of these full fruitions of talent, creativity, and integrity documented by researchers of late. Linda Ronstadt, who lent a hand in the formation of the Eagles,  is one of the unsung heroines of rock, giving song writers like J.D. Souther and Warren Zevon their start. Emmylou Harris has been an integral part of the folk music circuit, not only writing beautiful music but also transmitting fine songs by American folk song writers like Stephen Foster and Jean Ritchie. Dolly Parton, a Grand Ole Opry member since the age of  twenty-five, received the Living Legend Award from the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004. Beyond the beautiful harmonies they create, these women are thoughtful and sincere fans of one another and the music that each brings their performances and recordings. Rather than these differences detracting from the musical process or performance, the women find them to be opportunities to learn from and appreciate one another. Of their working relationship, Dolly Parton says that the singers are, “so different that we don’t collide in any way. We can like the best of each other and it works”.

Kate and Anna McGarrigle

Kate and Anna McGarrigle

The three women have collaborated with a variety of male and female artists throughout their careers. Parton partnered with friends and fellow country music legends Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette on the album Honky Tonk Angels. The three women shared the 1994 Grammy Award and the 1994 Country Music Award for Vocal Event of the Year for their performance of “Golden Threads and Silver Needles”. Individually both Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris have worked with two of Canada’s national treasures, Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Harris united her love of folk music with that of the McGarrigle sisters many times, including this performance of “Skip Rope Song,” featured on Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s 1998 album The McGarrigle Hour. After Kate died from cancer in January 2010,  Emmylou Harris wrote the tribute song “Darlin’ Kate”. Harris told the Globe and Mail that Kate McGarrigle “was one of the most extraordinary musicians I’ve ever known”. Ronstadt sang with Kate and Anna McGarrigle, their sister Jane McGarrigle, and Maria Muldaur during the McGarrigle’s 1984 television concert, which was recorded at the Red Creek Inn in Rochester, New York. One of the songs they sang was “Heart Like a Wheel,” which was written by Anna McGarrigle and recorded by Ronstadt on her 1974 album of the same title. The McGarrigles, Harris, and Ronstadt performed a poignant version of “Golden Ring” on the 1998 Tammy Wynette tribute album Tammy Wynette Remembered.

While women have experienced difficulties in creating music, in some part due to the absence of a women’s musical history, there is a wonderful and increasing deluge of research, recordings, and practicing musicians which suggest that today’s female musicians continue to build on a grand tradition of women making beautiful music. While the bulk of the research has concentrated on many individual female musicians, I think it is worth further exploring the impact of female collaborators on the music industry and on female musicians. Of course, if such research is to be undertaken it should be with the understanding that regardless of who is performing and what their gender, the revelation of story in the medium of music is an the extraordinary gift that keeps on giving, advancing, uniting.


Al-Deen, Hana Noor. “The Evolution of Rai Music.” Journal of Black Studies 35. 5 (2005): 597-611. JSTOR. Web. 7 December 2012.

Bowers, Jane, and Judith Tick. “Introduction.” Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950. Ed. Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986. 3-13. Print.

Kemp, Anthony E. “Psychological Androgyny in Musicians.” Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education 85 (1985): 102-108. JSTOR. Web. 7 December 2012.

Marshall, Kimberly. “Introduction.” Rediscovering the Muses. Ed. Kimberly Marshall. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993. xv-xxvii. Print.

Meyers, Carol L. “Of Drums and Damsels: Women’s Performance in Ancient Israel.” The Biblical Archaeologist 54.1 (1991): 16-27. JSTOR. Web. 7 December 2012.

—. “Symbols, Performers, and Sponsors: Female Musical Creators in the Late Middle Ages.” Rediscovering the Muses. Ed. Kimberly Marshall. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993. 140-168. Print.

Payne, Helen. “The Presence of the Possessed: A Parameter in the Performance Practice of the Music of Australian Aboriginal Women.” Rediscovering the Muses. Ed. Kimberly Marshall. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993. 49-67. Print.

Schleuter, Stanley L. “Effects of Certain Lateral Dominance Traits, Music Aptitude, and Sex Differences with Instrumental Music Achievement.” Journal of Research in Music Education 26.1 (1978): 22-31. JSTOR. Web. 7 December 2012.

Teeter, Emily. “Female Musicians in Pharaonic Egypt.” Rediscovering the Muses. Ed. Kimberly Marshall. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993. 68-91. Print.

Yardley, Anne Bagnall. “‘Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne’: The Cloistered Musician in the Middle Ages.” Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950. Ed. Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986. 15-38. Print.


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